Follow the money

Last week, Neil Hanvey “urged” Nicola Sturgeon not to follow Boris Johnson’s Covid “surrender strategy”. I agree. Specifically, he endorses her insistence that “masks need to stay”, but also not to use the Chinese lateral flow tests, purchased by the UK government. An article appeared in the BMJ as long ago as last January advising against their use, and more recently doubts have been raised about their accuracy, which can be shown to be as low as 2 (two) percent. If we don’t use those provided by Westminster, however, the Scottish Government would have to pay themselves.

At the same time, this raises issues about the encouragement by the Scottish Government that we should be testing ourselves twice a week, using these tests which too often return false positives. We are told that kind of regime will help to keep us safe, but the evidence is that it is more likely to require some to isolate when it’s not necessary.

This in turn raises the question of how far the First Minister can stray from Westminster? Last year, had the furlough scheme come to an end as planned, how could the Scottish Government have had to act differently? A widespread (e.g., Level 4) lockdown would have been all but impossible. Can a government – any government – tell people not to go to work without offering financial compensation? Yes, there is Universal Credit, but, leaving its adequacy to one side, that could hardly cope when the first lockdown started with furlough in place. What funding would there have been for businesses required to close?

As we all know, the Scottish Government is not sovereign and thus has no control of a sovereign currency. That lies in London. This point, no doubt would have Unionist letter writers (Martin Redfern, Peter Russell for instance) reaching for their pen/ keyboard, that this is a conclusive argument for Scotland remaining within the Union. It is though a particularly potent argument for why we must leave it.

How can poor wee Denmark – similar population, though a more successful football team – manage? They did the same as Rishi Sunak – they sold government debt to their central bank who provided the readies. Anyone who imagines Sunak is “active” in the international currency market to borrow to the requirements of the Westminster Government in the past 18 months, probably thinks he makes up any shortfall playing the spoons in Whitehall.

In passing, we might also learn a good deal from how the Danes managed their lockdown. They provided much better funding as well as practical support for those required to isolate, and thus people were much more likely to isolate. Likewise, life was more pleasant (or less challenging) for those recommended to shield. Note too their furlough arrangements, as hourly paid workers were paid 90% of their usual earnings, while salary earners got 80%!

Now Nicola has announced that we will be making our way back to ‘normality’, or ‘Freedom Day’ in England, albeit that we are doing it a bit more slowly. But, while there may be minimum agreement between Westminster and our devolved government doing so is by no means the consensus of the scientific community. Indeed Mike Ryan, an executive director of WHO has described it as an experiment in “epidemiological stupidity”.

By the time we get to the middle of next month all restrictions will be removed, while financial support for individuals and businesses will be coming to an end. But what could the Scottish Government do about this, but follow, however reluctantly and with however much delay? They simply could not maintain many of the restrictions for at least two reasons

  1. The comparison effect with England – “they’re getting on with their lives, why can’t we?”. Yet, the UK recorded 36660 new cases yesterday and 50 deaths. Given the lag between catching Covide and dying from it, we can expect deaths to increase in three or four weeks simply because there are more cases. How many more deaths we cannot be sure – more of these cases are among young people who the statistics say are less likely to die, and being vaccinated reduces the likelihood of death among older people. However, that 36660 is in a situation under restriction. It is almost certain that without restrictions that number will increase. Much is made of fewer being hospitalised because of the vaccines, BUT more cases create the potential for a further mutation which it is possible could compromise those vaccines we already have, EVEN IF there are fewer hospitalisations. Let’s not forget the recent letter in the Lancet by 120 of the world’s leading scientists calling on the British government to “turn back on its decision to lift all restrictions” and “refrain from its dangerous and reckless strategy of immunity via mass infection”. Remember the short debate about herd immunity back in March last year – well it’s what we are going to get now, but “you’ll have had your jag”. Is this really what we want to do – more deaths, risking a new variant simply because of the number of infections? The comparison with England is about rather more than how many folk you can have round your house, or go on a foreign holiday.
  2. Yet to do more/ be different in many case would cost money. Where does it come from? Westminster will send up the money to pay for their furlough scheme as long as it lasts – likewise the business support loans and grants – but only for as long as they decide to keep it going. Without serious financial powers this is way beyond the capacity of the Scottish Government. Tony Blair was quoted as saying that Holyrood was a sort of “parish council”. He might have been exaggerating to keep English voters quiescent, but this makes clear just how much Holyrood is the creature of the Westminster Parliament.

Hanvey is right that following Boris Johnson’s “surrender strategy” is the wrong thing to do, but how much discretion do the Scottish Government have in order not to follow? As Deep Throat advised in “All the President’s Men”, “follow the money”.

Something not about Alex, Nicola, or even James Hamilton

Mike Small in a piece today (“On Harry Cole, Doomsday and the new Hyper-Unionism” – https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2021/03/23/on-harry-cole-doomsday-and-the-new-hyper-unionism/), quotes John Harris as saying ” “Shall we at last face the facts? Even if the institutions of the United Kingdom creak on unchanged or are somehow saved by a new federalism, as a meaningful political entity the UK is all but over. Independence is partly a state of mind, and for very different reasons, a large number of people in Scotland, Wales and England have got there already.” (“English politicians are waving the union jack, but its meaning is tattered and torn” – https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/21/british-politicians-union-jack-flag.

Fwiw I have long had this notion – and I would put it not one wee bit stronger than that – this is no great analytical insight. – just a feeling – that when Scotland becomes independent, no referendum will be involved. In particular, I have been drawn to the Czechoslovak “velvet divorce” of the early 1900s. The reason for this was that ever since the Czechoslovak state had been set up, the Slovaks wanted a decentralised state, while the Czechs were quite happy with the country being run from Prague. As time went on the two communities progressively drifted apart. Slovaks were the minority community (about 1/3) but the Czechs felt that at that proportion they had too much power, though the Czech economy was about 20% bigger per capita than the Slovak. Czechs sought tighter integration of the two parts while the Slovaks sought more local independence. Sound familiar? Pressures from the larger community for greater centralisation of a system decentralised in some respects.

This became critical when in 1992 the Czechs elected Vaclav Klaus who advocated a tighter union of the two communities, while the Slovak’s political leader Miroslav Meciar wanted a confederal state. The Slovak Parliament declared Slovakia to be independent, and a few days later Klaus and Meciar agreed the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. There was no referendum – just the declaration of two politicians that the game was up for Czechoslovakia, even though only 36% of Czechs and 37% of Slovaks supported this in a contemporary opinion poll.

Why would this tell us anything about Scotland’s independence? For instance, while the Czechs were the largest group and dominated the country, they did so to a much lesser degree than England does the UK – 85% England; 8% Scotland. Nor did they have to deal with the Supreme Court and arcane notions of sovereignty, such that the Slovaks never had to go to the Czechs and ask if it was ok for them to become independent.

The relevance of this is that if Harris is correct and “as a meaningful political entity the UK is all but over”, there must be some process for this to happen.

Let’s take Wales, whose current First Minister, Mark Drakeford, was quoted earlier this month as saying “The United Kingdom “is over” and a new union should be crafted to reflect a “voluntary association of four nations”, (https://www.itv.com/news/wales/2021-03-05/the-united-kingdom-is-over-drakeford-says). Even more importantly he underlines this with “the break-up of the UK was possible if politicians only offered a “tweaking of the status quo” and yet, the direction of travel of post Brexit UK seems to be precisely the opposite.

The vision of the Westminster government, based on the philosophy and practice of the UK Internal Market Act is toward closer integration, side-stepping the possibility of potential difficulties with the device of “mutual recognition”, which threatens any part of the UK that imposes higher standards (eg of food production) with the lower standards of elsewhere having to be recognised and allowed to apply.

Harry Cole, Political Editor of the Sun (“ONE YEAR ON Boris Johnson was ‘naive’ to give Nicola Sturgeon pandemic powers, Cabinet colleagues claim” claims that some members of his Cabinet “wanted Mr Johnson to rely on the doomsday 2004 Civil Contingencies Act which gave Whitehall supreme authority for a “catastrophic emergency” rather than the four nations each going their own way. As Mike Small writes “There’s an ominous addendum: A Cabinet Minister said: “I have no doubt that it will be done differently next time. The PM knows that.”

In short, Johnson and his government are aiming to take the UK in precisely the opposite direction from what Drakeford wants. A confederation would be relatively loose – Huw Edwards might get to use his flag – but what Johnson et al want is a tightly integrated UK. But it is also important to remember Drakeford’s wider political opinions. This is the man who just last year said “Welsh nationalism is an “inherently right-wing creed” and that people must choose between it and socialism.” (https://nation.cymru/news/nationalism-inherently-right-wing-and-incompatible-with-socialism-first-minister-says/) and that “devolution is the best of both worlds. It allows us to remain part of the United Kingdom and draw on the strength of being part of that collective whole. But it puts decisions about what happens in Wales in the hands of people who live in Wales.” In short, Drakeford is no Nationalist, but if the sort of car crash that apparently looms comes about, he might have to make his mind up. Does he want Wales to be part of a new, more highly integrated UK – at least undermining devolution – or, if confederation is not available, will he support independence? Is this not rather like the contradiction that Klaus and Meciar walked into in 1992.

Then there is Ireland. Many feel the North rejoining the rest of Ireland is simply a matter of time, even if only on demographic grounds – a higher proportion of Roman Catholics among the younger population – the 2011 census was a “demographic watershed”, as for the first time, the proportion of the population declaring themselves as Protestant or brought up Protestant fell below 50 per cent. However, that does not take account the utter shambles of the Brexit agreement which places Northern Ireland in the strange situation of following EU Single Market rules (so that customs checks on the border are not necessary as to do so would contravene the Good Friday Agreement ) but still remains part of the United Kingdom. This part of the Brexit Agreement seems likely to see the EU Commission take the Westminster Government to Court over their unilateral increase to the “grace period” for not following new regulations to be extended.

What about England itself? Recently, Labour supporter Rachel Swindon tweeted, “If Bristol was worth a few headlines Liverpool will get its own 16 page souvenir pull-out.” Of course, if folk in Liverpool were to take the same course of action as people in Bristol, she might well be right, and just how Johnson would react if his government came under much the same sort of pressure in many more places than just Bristol (or even just Liverpool). Some of us are old enough to remember the riots in 1981 that took place mainly in Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth, Chapeltown and Moss Side, though there were other outbreaks in Bradford, Halifax, Blackburn, Preston, Birkenhead, Ellesmere Port, Chester, Stoke, Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, High Wycombe, Southampton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Knaresborough, Leeds, Hull, Huddersfield, Sheffield, Stockport, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Luton, Maidstone, Aldershot and Portsmouth. The causes were held to be racial tension, economic circumstances and police powers and how they were being exercised. Sound familiar? I think it’s fair to say that these issues were not finally settled forty years ago. Could we be set for a replay?

In 1981, Thatcher responded by addressing issues of youth unemployment with such as YTS, Police procedure was amended, the Scarman Commission argued “it was essential that “people are encouraged to secure a stake in, feel a pride in, and have a sense of responsibility for their own area”. He called for a policy of “direct coordinated attack on racial disadvantage”, and things did settle down after this. However, Thatcher’s authority was dented and only restored by the Falklands War

If the same thing happened to Bo Jo, would he be able to respond, or is his government actually so full of dolts that they wouldn’t know what to do? Ally this to Brexit, the stress of the lockdown and the virus and is the British state starting to wobble really a stupid question?

And there is us, Scotland. Current SNP leadership intends, assuming it wins the election in May, to approach Boris Johnson to seek another s30 Order so that another referendum can be held by agreement with Westminster. I have considerable sympathy with this view, particularly the latter part – “agreement with Westminster”, for without that independence is going to be awful lonely and difficult, even if it is possible. However, at the same time, it is widely held that Johnson will say No. Fine, say the Scottish Government, we will go to Court to determine that Scotland is able to organize its own lawful referendum, even if this means going to the Supreme Court to establish this. So let’s suppose this is what happens and that the Supreme Court says it is within the powers of Holyrood to hold its own referendum. Want to bet Westminster just changes (they will say “clarify”) the law, which is what they did with the Brexit Continuity Bill when it became clear they would lose at the Supreme Court. In other words, that route seems barren and unproductive. It will generate much heat, for I am not sure Johnson appreciates just how badly saying “no” could play in Scotland. Remember how well George Osborne’s “you wont get to use the pound” went down in February 2014! But where do we go?

I don’t think there is any agreed answer to this, though there are many suggested, but they all have one thing in common – uncertainty.

But let’s consider a situation where Northern Ireland wants to integrate with the rest of Ireland, Wales wants a new Union based on confederacy which has little support in the ruling Westminster elite and Scotland is, well, just being Scotland, and at the same time, England is starting to explode. Can the UK as a political entity survive so many significant challenges coming at it from all sides? Call it what you want – collapse of a dysfunctional UK state, divorce, or whatever. It does though seem to me that a referendum is not necessarily going to be the only way forward.

Actions have consequences

This title is something of a truism. One form of this is that anything we do can come back and bite us on the bum at some point in the future. This might be something that Alex and Nicola would do well to contemplate. But that, dear reader, is not my topic for tonight.

Instead, it is this. Have all of us thought through the consequences of the action that we are set on? As Stuart Campbell pointed out yesterday, “We’re in for a heck of a week in Scottish politics”. We are indeed.

First of all, the Scottish Government have agreed to publish the legal advice that they were given prior to Salmond’s judicial review. This is astonishing on at least two counts. There have been two previous demands by the Parliament for this to be published, which were both ignored, but the fact is that if not unique, then it is fairly unusual, in British politics for a government anywhere (even, or particularly, at Westminster) to make its legal advice public. Blair, for instance, simply refused to make public the legal advice he received before taking us into Iraq. But tonight, the Scottish Government decided to make public the legal advice they received prior to Salmond’s Judicial Review. Given that we know their QC threatened to withdraw rather than go into Court to argue for the procedure used in investigating Salmond, it seems clear it won’t be pretty reading for them (though it will be for the other parties). The problem they faced was that otherwise they would have faced a vote of no confidence in John Swinney, as the man nominally in charge. Thus, it seems possible, if not actually likely, that some kind of political comparison has been made with the conclusion that the harms caused by losing Swinney were greater than publishing the advice.

This will now, secondly, have to be defended by James Wolfe as Lord Advocate, and in charge of the Government’s legal affairs, when he meets the Inquiry on Tuesday. Rather like Sturgeon’s meeting on Wednesday, it will be interesting to see how they do.

After this, the final curtain will come down on this wholly unedifying (and in my view unnecessary) affair when the Committee of Inquiry publish their final report, which will no doubt come to conclusions on whether the First Minister broke the Ministerial Code of Conduct. Even if it is found that she has, whether she will resign is open to question as there is nothing mechanical in this regard in the Code. In fact, interestingly, if a Minister is found to have breached the Code, then the question becomes whether the First Minister retains confidence in them. So, I suppose the issue will be whether the First Minister still retains confidence in Nicola Sturgeon.

If the conclusion of the Committee and James Hamilton is that she didn’t breach the Ministerial Code, then while she has been damaged by the bad (particularly bad?) publicity she gets from the press, she can put it behind her.

But let’s suppose, either the Committee of Inquiry or Hamilton’s investigation, determine that she did breach the Code. It is possible that politically she might survive, but especially with this Parliament about to be dissolved (before the end of March), and particularly if the SNP were returned with their own majority, she might be able to ride it out. We can though be sure that her breach of the Code will be made most salient by her political opponents. Will it affect the SNP vote? According to Ipsos Mori what matters for Scottish voters are

1.    Scottish independence/devolution 394 or 38%.

2.    Education/schools 305 or 30%

3.    Healthcare 239 or 23%

4.    Coronavirus 199 or 19%

5.    Economy 163 or 16%

6.    Europe 127 or 12%. (https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/99457212/posts/3204578393)

Only 0.7% selected LGBT rights and, and less than half of 1%, selected the Salmond Inquiry. It seems that James Doleman might be right when he asserted that no one outside the Edinburgh Ring Road cares very much about this.

Perhaps, though, we should care. So far, we have considered scenarios where the First Minister survives – possibly scarred, but still alive. But let’s suppose she doesn’t and has to resign. Who will be happy? Well I suspect Wings will put the flags out. Others – such as Kenny MacAskill, Chris McElenay – along with others, some of whom I still consider friends, will have a wee smile on their face. But who else? Will Sturgeon’s critics – and there are others besides those named – be happy to be standing beside such as Andrew Marr, Euan McColm, Alan Cochrane, Stephen Daisley, Sarah Smith, Kirsty Wark and of course Andrew Neill? Remember when various Labour grandees cavorted around BBC Scotland when it got out that Salmond had lost in Gordon in 2017? That will be as nothing if they get the First Minister.

If the current First Minister has to resign, we will have lost someone who is not divisive (unlike Alex Salmond, who has other qualities, including inducing endless loyalty among his followers), a fine communicator and, perhaps more important than anything, someone who has their public approval at a level that most politicians would die for.

Do I think she has made mistakes? Yes – I think that is clear from what I have written already? Do I think those mistakes amount to a resigning matter? No, I don’t, and I think this for two reasons. First, if she goes, who is getting the job? Is there an MSP who stands out as a candidate? Even an MP? It’s a bit like sacking your football club’s manager because he has lost a few games, when you don’t have a clue whether anyone better is available.

But secondly, because there is a greater prize out there that is more important than anything – independence. Getting out of the UK. I can scarcely believe that faced with the most incompetent bunch of shysters in Downing Street ever in my adult life, polls suggesting we would be starting with anything from 52% support upwards and a debate which seems to me to be changing from “why independence?” to “what are we doing still in the UK?”, we are having this rammy. As I titled an earlier blog – FFS.

In terms of religious belief I would characterise myself as an extreme agnostic (in the strict sense of that word, that as humans we are not equipped to be able to know if God exists), but my prayer would be that, even now, Salmond and Sturgeon can get their heads together, realise that there is a greater prize, the one they signed up for, and can come to an agreement to work together in the future. However uneasily! I mean if he can turn water into wine and raise folk from the dead, is that too much to ask?

A Garbage Can Explanation for Salmond v Sturgeon

Conspiracy, proper conspiracy, emergent conspiracy and garbage cans.

A few days ago Peter Bell published an interesting article – “Alex Salmond: A fly bugger” (https://peterabell.scot/2021/02/23/alex-salmond-a-fly-bugger) in which he asserts that when Alex Salmond’s refers, as he does in his evidence to the Holyrood Committee to “a deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort amongst a range of individuals” he is not quite describing a ‘proper’ conspiracy.”

But what is a “proper conspiracy”? In law a conspiracy is when “A person who agrees with another or others to act in a way which would involve the commission of an offence by any party to the agreement is guilty of conspiracy to commit the offence” (https://www.scotlawcom.gov.uk/files/5712/8024/7006/cp_criminal_code.pdf). One problem in using “conspiracy” for the current imbroglio of Salmond and Sturgeon is that to the best of my knowledge, no offence in law has been committed, by either side. Powers have perhaps been abused, the Ministerial Code broken, but I don’t see anyone being in the poky as a result.

Thus, is conspiracy an appropriate concept to help us to understand what has been going on, or is it just clickbait to attract online readers, or increase dead tree sales – ie just lazy journalism. I am pretty certain that Levy and McCrae as well as the others in Team Salmond are being well rewarded for their efforts and could easily employ “conspiracy”, emergent or otherwise, if it suited their purpose.

Perhaps, another, more insightful explanation can be derived from the “Garbage Can Model of Decision-Making” (Michael D. Cohen, James G. March, and Johan P. Olsen). Any rational theory of decision-making puts the various stages of decision-making in a logical sequential order – for instance that problem identification will always precede the development of a solution. This is not necessary for the garbage can model.

This model operates in what the authors describe as an “organized anarchy” of problematic preferences, unclear technology, and fluid participation. Public institutions, they say, often satisfy what they describe as “organized anarchy”. So do Universities!

The core idea is that that are four variables or “streams” circulating in a fixed decision space, that decision space being the garbage can; those four variables are: problems, decision participants, choice opportunities, and solutions.

Solutions can be in search of problems to attach themselves to. For instance, holograms existed for many years without any kind of widespread use, till financial institutions realised they could be used to foil counterfeiters. The expertise of participants can determine which problems to address – accountants for instance will tend to drift toward problems that are financial in nature; the choice opportunities that exist can determine which solutions are selected.

Let’s apply that to the present situation. For instance, fired up by the Weinstein case and the #metoo movement, the First Minister decides that there must be a procedure to deal with misdemeanours of even previous and no longer serving Ministers, so that sexual predators can be found out even years later just as Weinstein was. Let’s presume that the First Minister was telling the truth in 2017 that she had heard at an earlier stage, reports about Alex Salmond’s behaviour toward some women What to do about it? Could it be reviewed in the same way that the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein and Rolf Harris had been.

At the same time, two Civil Servants come forward with complaints about the previous conduct of the former First Minister, while in office. Thus, we have the problem, but we also have the solution in place – a process is to be developed to address this very problem.

The decision participants are in place – Judith McKinnon and Lesley Evans, and the choice opportunity when the First Minister signs of the procedure.

Bit too pat for you? How likely is it that two Civil Servants would come forward at/about the same time a procedure is being implemented to address this very situation? Undeniably convenient?

James Kelly too has published a similar sort of argument to Bell – maybe there wasn’t a conspiracy (he doesn’t bother to try to define “conspiracy”) but “having overreached themselves with a tainted process for what they might well have thought was the best of motives, they may have then panicked about the political damage that would be done to them as a result of a legal defeat.”, so they plough on and the case is heard at the High Court resulting in … Salmond being cleared on all charges. As David Hooks tweeted, “what a bloody shambles”!

The alternative is however that otherwise we need to be able to show conspiracy, emergent or otherwise. According to Peter Bell “All that is required for the appearance of conspiracy to emerge is that there should be a sufficient number of people; with a sufficient amount of influence; and a sufficient commonality of interest.” That though is not quite true, for we need to show those with the influence and commonality of interest shared a common mens rea “the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused.”. We also need to show that they planned to, and did indeed, act in concert.

Kelly suggests that this was because of a belief that Salmond intended to return to Parliamentary politics, when in fact it was widely known at the time that he intended to become chairman of Johnson Press, owners ot the Scotsman, and was putting it about he was finished with front line politics. Maybe, particularly bearing in mind that Salmond and Sturgeon must have known each other a good length of time and were old comrades (or so it seemed), she might have asked?

But in any event, what do we know the state of mind of those involved? What, for instance, was the motive of the First Minister? Was it to ‘do in’ her former mentor and if so why? Or was it to ensure that the complainants were not “let down”? We might have opinions, but DO we know? It’s all very well to assert that anything that waddles and quacks must be a duck, but we would do well to consider the origin of the saying, which concerned a mechanical duck that did waddle and did quack but was not a real duck (https://www.mirror.co.uk/usvsth3m/you-know-phrase-if-looks-5235884).

There is, therefore, a good deal still to go before Bell’s claim that Salmond has left two verdicts for the Committee of Inquiry – that there was a conspiracy, or there was “a deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort amongst a range of individuals” would stand up.

Moreover, let’s not forget just what is being claimed by at least some of Salmond’s supporters, that not only is the First Minister corrupt, but so must be her Deputy, John Swinnie and her Lord Advocate (a former Faculty Dean) as well as a good part of the Crown Office. Then there is the Chief Executive of the SNP (the First Minister’s husband) its Chief Operating Officer, as well as sundry Party Officials. Oh, yes and Police Scotland too.

I accept that the Garbage Can explanation can seem a bit too convenient, but is the alternative not just a bit extreme? Bell himself reflects a conclusion not inconsistent with the Garbage Can Model of what happened – “As far as she [the First Minister] and her people are concerned everybody was just doing their job. Perhaps ‘mistakes were made’. Maybe things were done that shouldn’t have been done or done in a way that could have been better. But no actual conspiracy.”

The First Minister wants us to focus on the facts. Well, we know that sexual harassment was and remains a serious problem for the First Minister – there was a problem. We know a process was devised to investigate such claims. Its difficulty was that it offended the law in so many ways that the Scottish Government had to abandon it in the Court of Session just prior to Alex Salmond’s Judicial Review.

We know there were participants – the First Minister, her Principal Secretary, as well as others in the Civil Service and in the SNP. We know there were a variety of decision opportunities within this organized anarchy.

In short, we need to ask ourselves whether there was a conspiracy, or even “”a deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort amongst a range of individuals”. Either way, the problem is that motive is crucial since Salmond himself is asserting that it was “deliberate” and “concerted” – not something that just happened. What is the evidence for this? How much evidence that it was malicious rather than incompetent or misconceived? How much evidence that it was directed at addressing the wrongs the complainants had claimed?

Short changing journalists

How easy it is to earn a nice wedge for doing not very much. This https://www.heraldscotland.com/…/19119385.scottish…/ will take you to Iain McWhirter tells us what will happen in the event Johnson says No. he works through the usual stuff – not “a generation”, not the right time etc, though he does have the decency to accept that this argument is thin.

Perhaps more importantly, he makes the observation that Johnson doesn’t want to go down in history as the 21st century version of Lord North (who was PM when America won its independence).

But neither will the present First Minister “call a “wildcat” or unauthorised referendum such as the one in Catalonia in 2017, but rather faced with a refusal of Holyroods’s request for a S30 Order will take “the UK government to the Supreme Court, claiming the right of self-determination.” McWhirter rejects this because in his view the Supreme Court made clear in the Miller case in 2017 that Westminster could not be overruled on constitutional matters. Eh, sorry Iain, but I dont think that is what they said. What they did say was to confirm – yet again! – that the House of Commons is sovereign. This does not explicitly rule out the possibility of Holyrood having their own referendum – for instance to test public opinion. Actually, the problem with a “wildcat” referendum is that Westminster is likely to say – even to a Yes majority – “oh that’s nice. Jolly good” and just ignore it. What do we do then?

But let’s say we end up at the Supreme Court and let us also assume that the Scottish Government case is successful. I would hazard a guess that the first thing Westminster will do is to change the law so that referenda on any topic you care to name, can only be carried out if Westminster says it’s ok. Westminster is sovereign after all. An earlier example is what they did with Holyrood’s Continuity Bill in 2018/19 – if Scotland is doing something you don’t like then change the law. https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/2018/12/20/chris-mccorkindale-and-aileen-mcharg-continuity-and-confusion-towards-clarity-the-supreme-court-and-the-scottish-continuity-bill/

So McWhirter works through the pretty obvious territory then pretty much condemns the whole independence project with little more than a wave of his hand. However, thinking it through a bit further demonstrates that we are between a rock and a hard place.

The hard place is Westminster which is not, or not easily, going to engage with the possibility of a legal referendum that they could quite easily lose (McWhirter also makes something of the possibility that we would make the same mistake as 2014, but of course forgets that this time we start off from somewhere around 50% support and not half that as we did last time).

The rock on which I rather fear we might perish is that with the present regime in Bute House, if there is no possibility of a “legal” (ie S30 referendum, or one endorsed by the Supreme Court) referendum then the will simply not go beyond this. Yet if Westminster keep saying No and we do nothing to respond, folk are going to get fed up and wander off, so we will lose that way instead.

Johnson saying No cannot be the end of the story. At worst it must be the “end of the beginning”.

In Defence of Nicola Sturgeon

Previously we have worked through a good deal of the case for the “prosecution” of Nicola Sturgeon. What follows is, broadly, the case for the defence.

One of the most trenchant critics of the First Minister has been Stewart Campbell at Wings over Scotland, to the extent that when I see he is dealing with this topic I tend to stop reading. Campbell was a major asset in the 2014 campaign. I know people who still have their “Wee Blue Book” from back then. He undermined the Unionist case at every turn, even if he did have his own weaknesses (a failure to follow the rule that you don’t say anything on social media you wouldn’t say to your maiden aunt at Christmas dinner) – but then, who has no weaknesses?

In one of his critical pieces – “Weak in the Presence of Beauty” https://wingsoverscotland.com/weak-in-the-presence-of-beauty/ – he cites Sturgeon’s self-confessed “imposter syndrome”, making her, in Campbell’s words, a “disastrously weak leader”, characterised by “an absolute terror of doing anything unpopular.” Not that “doing anything unpopular” is unusual for a politician. Tony Blair was said not to even get up unless the proposal had been approved in triangulated focus groups. Perhaps he might have remembered this when getting involved in W’s attack on Iraq.

But more importantly, it is surely abnormal for any politician to knowingly, consciously and deliberately do anything unpopular, unless there were reasons to believe that down the line it would make them even more popular. Becoming unpopular is hardly the most efficient route to getting re-elected. Yet Sturgeon over the last 12 months has done many things which could be suspected of making her unpopular (and in some cases, probably has). She has dealt with the Covid pandemic in ways that are much more cautious and more draconian than has been typical of England, or most other parts of the UK. She is regularly misrepresented in the press – Brillo’s latest “inaccuracy” is just one example. Yet despite all this, and to the annoyance of her opponents, her current approval ratings verge on the unbelievable. Not only is she more popular in Scotland than the Prime Minister, but more popular than Boris Johnson in England as well. In Scotland 57% (plus 57%) approve of how she is discharging her role, while -7% (minus 7% – subtracting do not approve from approve) “approve” of Johnson’s performance. Despite the fact that most money to support the Scottish economy comes from the UK Treasury (though funded by our taxes, and because the relevant powers have not been devolved), the Times found that 30% of Scots thought the Scottish Government had provided most funding to support business and the economy. Only 21% thought it was the UK. And so it goes on – positive rating after positive rating.

Campbell asserts however, that “When half of Scotland is constantly attacking you, the only thing that stops you being totally overwhelmed by your self-doubt is the backing of your loyal supporters.” The problem with this explanation is that it is impossible to disprove. Either she crumbles because she’s “disastrously weak”, but if she doesn’t it’s only the support of her followers that keeps her going. So, one way or the other disastrous weakness will always be there.

It was Abraham Lincoln who observed “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time”. Is this an indication of a disastrously weak leader, who has fooled a lot of the people, at least, for rather a long time? And IF we are dealing with a “disastrously weak leader” where does her support come from? Why does it not evaporate? Does it not suggest she might be doing ‘something’ right? You cannot “fool all of the people all of the time” etc.

It is here that Campbell’s one-dimensional view of “imposter syndrome” is exposed. This can be defined as “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.” However, such doubts might not be well founded. For instance, does Campbell’s argument deter him from recognising, as many do (and not just her admirers) that she is first class communicator? Or that she is significantly less divisive than Alex Salmond?

As the pandemic has proceeded, support for independence has significantly increased – 21 polls (at the time of writing) with a majority for independence, though perhaps (to be “glass half empty”) it has plateaued. Even then, as John Robertson points out in his blog, the number of “don’t knows” is increasing, while the “No” vote is declining and “Yes” remaining stable – ie that the Union vote is beginning to question its loyalty to the UK. Is Sturgeon the person to get the independence proposition over the line?

Sticking with the positive orientation of this paper, it has often seemed to me that Sturgeon’s caginess about looking for another vote was based on a strategy that would allow her, when the time is right, to go to the Scottish electorate and claim that she had tried everything with regard to Brexit – made proposals to keep Scotland in the Single Market and the UK for instance – but nothing worked. Theresa May’s insistence that “we joined the EU as the entire UK, and we will leave as the entire UK” is an illustration even if it’s not what happened given the status of Northern Ireland.

Is it not a reasonable view that while Westminster is unlikely to approve another vote after the May election, it was even less likely during the shambles of the Brexit negotiations. Sturgeon’s policy might be said to be “don’t fire till you can see the whites of their eyes”. Or to paraphrase Pat Kane, “you win a referendum before the debate”. The more radical wing of the SNP may have found this unbearable, itching to get on with it. However, the problem with this, it seems to me, is that we really do have to get it right this time and win the vote, for there won’t be another any time soon if we lose next time.

Thus what would the consequences be of Sturgeon having to resign? Well, we would have lost an excellent communicator, someone who has a wide following and is not, as Alex Salmond sometimes was, divisive. The problem is whether she will follow through on her policy of seeking a S30 Order if there is a pro-independence majority elected to Holyrood in May. My own view is that she will, and that Johnson will duly say “No”. The foundations of this are already being laid by such as Alister Jack pointing to the difficulty to holding a referendum during a pandemic, as well as interspersing this with meditations on the meaning of “generation”.

The question then is what does she do next? If Westminster appears determined not to grant a S30 Order, does the First Minister sit tight and wait for them to change their mind? The problem is she could be waiting a long time as the SNP’s 11-point strategy concludes. This says that as well as seeking a S30 Order, the SNP will put forward a Bill at Holyrood allowing a referendum after the pandemic (ie 2022 most likely). This, it is claimed faces Westminster with three choices:

  1. agree that the Scottish Parliament already has the power to legislate for a referendum.
  2. agree the section 30 order – as happened ahead of the 2014 vote.
  3. take legal action to dispute the legal basis of the referendum.

Assuming that the Westminster Government maintains its negative stance, the likely outcome is number 3 (making the defenestration of Joanna Cherry even less wise, I would suggest). If this is won, then presumably a referendum could go ahead. But what if not?

Does Sturgeon have the courage to take the kinds of extra-Parliamentary action that might be necessary, for instance to change Westminster’s mind by making Scotland essentially ungovernable? Is she willing to support Craig Murray’s view that “One day, all supporters of Independence are going to be forced to get their heads round the fact that London is going for the Madrid solution, and we are not going to achieve Independence without using peaceful, non-violent routes which are nevertheless going to be deemed illegal by the Establishment.” Whether Nicola Sturgeon would embrace this view, even as a final option, is wonderfully unclear, but it is clear that, if she survives the present challenge to her leadership what happens after Westminster says “No” will be the next challenge, which will make her present problems with regard to Alex Salmond seem tiny in comparison.

Whether she lacks the qualities to address these conditions effectively is open to doubt, but what is not in doubt is that the personal qualities she has demonstrated during the course of the pandemic are much admired and would be a very considerable asset in future efforts to secure independence, making the current Alex Salmond situation even more tragic.

On a personal note, I remember, aged 13 listening to a radio commentary of Scotland playing Poland at Hampden in a qualifying match for the World Cup in England in 1966. Like most such games, it was important to win, and with five minutes to go, we were by 1-0. But in those last five minutes two goals were lost and success snatched from the jaws of victory. I worry that in the political sphere, history might be repeating itself – that with the job nearer done than at any time before, we screw up. On the other hand, it appears that the night before Bannockburn, Bruce and his Generals spent the night arguing about tactics. Maybe, this is just “the Scottish way”?

Perhaps the best possibility is that court reporter, James Doleman is right that “”As I’ve said before, I don’t think that, outside the Edinburgh ring road, anyone cares if Nicola Sturgeon heard about the Alec Salmond case on Tuesday or Wednesday, it just doesn’t matter to most people.” In this he is supported by the “What Scotland Thinks”, website which has found that trust in Nicola Sturgeon (up to 09/02) has hardly changed at all.

Nicola Sturgeon – the case for the prosecution

It seems probable that the First Minister will appear before the Holyrood Inquiry some time, maybe, into her government’s handling of the procedure with regard to Alex Salmond. At FMQs this week she called for us all to wait till we hear what she has to say then and not prejudge the issue. I am going to try to accommodate her in this reasonable request , but at the same time to point to some of the questions I hope she will be asked, whenever she appears, and to give some background why they seem important to me to be asked.

My first question concerns why or how, someone with an LLB from the University of Glasgow and experience as a solicitor allowed THAT procedure to be used in respect of Alex Salmond. Or indeed anyone at all! I could leave it at pointing out that the whole thing was laughed out of the Court of Session. Indeed, the Scottish Government conceded Salmond’s case. More than this though, the concession was only at the insistence of the government’s own QC who threated to withdraw if they didn’t withdraw. Why would a senior QC do this?

Well, first of all Salmond was never told about the inquiry until it was almost over, meaning he was not allowed to put his side of the story (stories) to the inquiry. Nor, Salmond claims, was he allowed access to his Ministerial diary (from the time he was First Minister) or other Ministerial papers. But even worse, the inquiry was led by a Civil Servant who had encouraged, assisted and supported at least two of the women who made the allegations against Salmond. These are all fundamental breaches of Natural Justice. The person being accused must be told of what it is alleged they have done in order that they can reply to the charges. They must have access to the evidence they require, and no one may be a judge in his own cause: “nemo debet esse judex in propria causa. …” no matter how small. These are all fundamental failings, which I would expect a first-year student to be aware of and appreciate, never mind a graduate who went on practice and in due course became First Minister of her country. Nor does it speak well of the legal advice she took – assuming she took it.

So my first question would be “how was this allowed to happen in such an incompetent manner?”

Secondly, a procedure against a former employee always appears odd. What can the employer do? If there is criminality, then all they can do is report the former employee to the Police – for instance if there has been theft. I believe no other government in the world has the kind of procedure that Scotland has. Given this, added to all of the above, what did the Head of the UK Civil Service make of Lesley Evans’ involvement in an utterly incompetent shambles like this? It is often said that Evans’ boss is Nicola Sturgeon, but this is only partly true. Evans is an employee of the UK Civil Service, and as such another hierarchical superior is the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, formerly Mark Sedwill and now Simon Case. Indeed, if Sturgeon was so unhappy with Evans, she could not just sack her. She would have to report Evans to Sedwill/ Case to discuss them removing her (though I suspect, if the relationship had broken down to this degree, they probably would. To some extent this is what happened with John Elvidge, Salmond’s first Permanent Secretary prior to the appointment of Peter Housden).

Moreover, the door in Number 10 Downing Street reads “First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service”. One might assume that the Civil Service would be anxious to do things properly – but then that was perhaps the Civil Service of “Yes Minister”. Is the UK Civil Service now the Civil Service of “The Thick of It”?

So, my second question would be, how did the UK Civil Service react to this? Did they issue any warnings? Any indications of “disquiet?” Yes, Civil Servants have a duty to follow the instructions of their political masters, but was their involvement appropriate in this case?

Thirdly, as a committed Feminist, one might expect that the First Minister would want to see process unwind against Mr Salmond. Particularly given Harvey Weinstein that she would want to see the accusations made against Salmond investigated. But surely, investigated properly? It is very difficult, without referring to hypothetical conspiracies to be sure of this, but two things at least seem clear. First, that in a criminal trial in front of a jury of 15 of his peers (9 of them being women), Alex Salmond was charged with 14 cases of varying severity of sexual assault. However, we also know that he was found Not Guilty of 13 of them and Not Proven in 1. This does not mean nothing happened – it means no more than if something did happen it did not cross the bar of criminality. It is accepted in Employment Law that it is not reasonable to expect an employer’s investigation to be as forensic as “beyond reasonable doubt”, but Salmond’s case was investigated by the Police to investigate and secure evidence over a number of months and at no little cost. One might have thought there was sufficient evidence to make conviction seems a reasonable expectation, yet, 14 charges later, all rejected by the High Court, the case is in tatters, suggesting a rather flaky investigation by the Police as well

Secondly we know that there is evidence that in at least one case the allegations could not be true for the person in question was not present. Likewise, SNP Chief Operating Officer, Sue Ruddick claimed that Salmond assaulted her during the Glenrothes by-election. To quote Anne Harvey, the Principal Assistant to the Chief Whip, SNP Westminster Group, Ms Ruddick

“suggested an act of physical aggression by Mr Salmond. I know that to be wrong since I was the only witness to this supposed event.

She is referring to an incident in the Glenrothes by-election in which we campaigned together. We were ‘door-knocking’ and leafletting in a block of flats during a media event. Alex walked past Sue in the stairwell of a close. He brushed past her on the stairwell as he was heading to leave the close. I saw and heard nothing which caused me any alarm or concern. I was only yards away.

This is the incident she is referring to, but I can categorically confirm that there was no physical aggression on the part of Mr Salmond. Any contact at all between him and her that day was absolutely inadvertent and in no way deliberate or aggressive.” (https://yoursforscotlandcom.wordpress.com/2021/02/08/following-a-statement-by-sue-riddick-to-the-media-the-plot-continues-and-flops-again/)

This might be said to be an example of what Ann Fortier draws our attention to, “those who control the present can rewrite the past.” Certainly though, it does seem to be the case that the investigation into Salmond’s alleged wrong-doing, were less than adequate.

Even more interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, Ms Harvey refers specifically to a request by SNP HQ which she describes as “improper”, and “seeking to damage Mr Salmond”, which has led her to believe “for some time that there was what I described in writing on 28August 2018 as a ‘witch-hunt’ against [Alex Salmond]”.

So, my third question would be – following on from the first – whether the First Minister is satisfied with the work done to validate the evidence used against Alex Salmond?

Fourthly, and lastly, given the unfolding disaster of these events, why has she allowed it to go on for so long? When your own QC – the very person who should be going into Court to argue your case – threatens to withdraw rather than do this, is it not a sign that not only is something wrong, but very, very wrong? When the evidence is collapsing around your ears how much sense does it make to plough on? Is it even politic – let’s ignore morality for now – to use the force of law to persecute individuals such as Mark Hirst and Craig Murray for using social media to make statements which appear to contradict your own threadbare case? Perhaps Ms Sturgeon should remember that her own core policy – independence for Scotland – is not what the Westminster government wants to hear, but that Oriel Junqueras languishes in a Spanish jail for making this case for Catalonia. Acting against the government is a well-established political activity which, as long as it avoids criminality, is regarded as legitimate. Is it criminal to say in a video blog that the women making the allegations “would reap the whirlwind” as Mark Hirst did (and was not only found Not Guilty, but that he had no case to answer) or to issue via social media daily reports on Salmond’s trial as Craig Murray did? Apparently so, but then as Oriel Junqueras forgot – it’s the government that write the law. Is Scotland not better than to employ the legal system to silence its critics?

Thus my final question would be whether she considers the use of prosecution against her critics, and the use of law (and threats of prosecution) to manage the information made public, to have been proportionate?

However, as David Hooks (@politicsscot) tweeted “If the whole Nicola Sturgeon/Alex Salmond thing is a conspiracy to get him and a cover up, and I’m not saying it is, but if it is, it’s the most cack handed, badly planned, poorly executed, incompetent and amateur conspiracy and cover up conceived. What a bloody shambles.” (https://twitter.com/PoliticsScot/status/1359905488582963200)

Your Move

Iain Lawson today has published a blog (“Which Move Next”) setting out a rejoinder strategy to that published by the SNP last week https://yoursforscotlandcom.wordpress.com/2021/01/27/which-move-next/

There is much to praise in Iain’s blog (which is more than can be said about the SNP’s proposal). He is for instance bang on the money in much of his criticism of the SNP proposal.

For instance, it is clear that a Unionist strategy is to block any future referendum on any pretext. I published a paper – “There’s aye an excuse” – in my own blog (https://wordpress.com/view/iamsoccerdoc.wordpress.com), and also on “Talking Up Scotland” (https://talkingupscotlandtwo.com/2021/01/26/theres-aye-a-reason/), reviewing the many ways in which London has said “no”, “not yet”, or with such conditions (eg 66% of the electorate to vote in favour) as to make it impossible, or defining “generation” to death as though it had some legal significance.

However, while I agree with Iain that they will also seek to delay and frustrate, I fear the problems are a bit more difficult than he acknowledges.

For instance, under frustrate, he suggests “local authorities can oppose the use of their schools etc. they can block the staff and facilities required for polling stations and counts.” In the event of a referendum that might be deemed illegal, I would imagine that this would be a very popular strategy in places like Aberdeen.

Or take his argument, under “Delay”, asking “How long will the SNP be prepared to wait before going to court?” Iain considers that the SNP strategy “hands timescale to our opponents it lets them decide when and where to intervene”. Well, there are two replies to this.

First, he asks why “the Scottish Government, through the Lord Advocate, acted so negatively throughout the Keating case, an action, if successful, that would clarify the referendum position once and for all.” Yes, so it might as there is the possibility of the losing party making an appeal. But let’s keep it simple and omit that possibility. There will be one of two answers.

One is “No, Holyrood does not have the legal power to call a legal referendum”, in which case, as Iain says, the position has been clarified once and for all. Just not the way we wanted it.

But, let’s suppose Keating is successful and the Court decides Holyrood does have the power to call some sort of legal referendum (eg that Westminster might not be bound by it). What then? Well, we have the guidance of how Westminster reacted to their loss on the Continuity Bill, which the Courts decided was in Holyrood’s power. Westminster – and remember the Supreme Court has confirmed the sovereignty of the House of Commons twice now in the last few years – changed the law. Why would they not do this again by putting through an Act that makes clear that only Westminster has the legal power to call any type of referendum on any matter, sufficiently clearly nailed down that even a five-year-old would understand it. Nice one Michael!

Yes Iain, timescale is important, as well as delaying too long (something I have no trouble in admitting the present administration have engaged in much too much), you can also go to soon. Perhaps seeking clarification as close as possible to a vote, thus limiting the time for Westminster to act. Keating’s case doesn’t take this into account.

However, it is later on that I have real problems, particularly with the proposition that if the independence movement (by which I take it he means the SNP + Greens) has a majority then because both parties “who support Independence .. pledge clearly in their manifesto that all votes cast for them in the election are votes to support Scottish Independence” that would be sufficient “for the newly elected Scottish Government to declare Independence to the World and begin discussions with Westminster for an amicable and peaceful settlement.”

Oh Iain, you have no idea how I wish it were so simple. You write later on “On a date determined by the newly elected Scottish Parliament Scotland will become an Independent state and the applications for recognised status as such will be made internationally.”

Have you considered whether, or to what extent these “applications for recognised status” as a sovereign state will be successful? We can probably kiss goodbye to the EU for a start, for the Spanish for one will kick up holy hell for they won’t want anything that will encourage the Catalans. And didn’t the international community do a good job of standing with the Catalans in their time of need?

Which brings me to the second point. Do you really think that even a fat, useless oaf like Johnson will be sitting about doing nothing while all this happens? Do you have any sense of the economic dislocation that will follow that will make Brexit look like a well-oiled strategy? You don’t think they will react? As far as I can see you don’t take this into account. Instead you write we will “begin discussions with Westminster for an amicable and peaceful settlement.”

For what it’s worth I don’t see grannies getting pulled downstairs by the hair on their head, or folk battened in the street. That is not the UK way, but you can bet they will act.

Does this mean I think Iain’s strategy lacks merit? Well in terms of what I have written so far, I must think it lacks some. Do I think it should be used? I have some qualms about how folk will act in the voting booth. How many Labour supporters, for instance, could vote Yes, but not SNP? But I do see Iain’s point, and it’s not like we can’t engineer another election at our choosing – Theresa May showed how that’s done.

My problems with Iain’s approach are two fold

  1. At some point in the process of achieving independence we need to deal with, engage with London. It seems unlikely it will be at the start (as for instance was the case in 2014 – we shot our own foot off that time). However, this is a necessity not an option. That’s not to say we hang around waiting for them to say it’s all ok, for they will never say that. But at some point, before the last Union flag is lowered for the last time, they need to be involved and to nod their heads (however unwillingly and with poor grace).
  2. My view is that there is not a single strategy that will secure independence for Scotland. Or at least not on its own. We have settled into a paradigm of Plan A and Plan B. Soon there will be plan C, or D or E. I doubt any of them, on their own will work.

The basic problem is this. Not negotiating Scottish independence must be more painful for the political leadership at Westminster than its negotiation, Given the diminution of England if Scotland become independent then their reasons for acting as they are at least become more understandable, if no less unacceptable.

In October 2018 Craig Murray wrote this “One day, all supporters of Independence are going to be forced to get their heads round the fact that London is going for the Madrid solution, and we are not going to achieve Independence without using peaceful, non-violent routes which are nevertheless going to be deemed illegal by the Establishment.” (https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2018/10/taking-the-radical-road-with-auob/comment-page-1/) I suggest some thought is given to what these might be, and that enough are developed to do the job.

Whether what Iain suggests is legal or not, with tweeks and recognition of difficulties it faces, it has a contribution to make, but on its own, I doubt it would be successful. We need to bring London to accept and to negotiate our independence, and for this we need a hydra-like strategy, such that even if Westminster cuts off one head, the others remain.


 

There’s aye a reason

As I write this, I am listening with one ear to a dialogue of the deaf between Keith Brown of the SNP and Jamie Greene of the Scottish Conservatives, concerning the SNP’s newly adopted plan B. Greene, as a Tory so not a surprise, is a agin it on the grounds that we are right in the middle of a Covid pandemic. Of course, this is in some regards at least, risible. For one thing, even the SNP are not suggesting a referendum next week or even next month. One of their MPs Kenny MacAskill pointed out in a Wings’ article the other day that with the COP conference in November in Glasgow, the chances of a referendum this year are vanishingly small.

Of course, the pandemic (in which the London government has hardly covered themselves in glory) is just the latest in a long line of reasons to say “no”.

The classic is Theresa May’s “Now is not the time”, which raises the suspicion that it would be a cold day in Hell when it was the time.

Then there are the variants on “you’ve had your referendum”, pointing to the “settled will” of the Scottish people in 2014, treating democracy as an event rather than as a process.

Linked to this are the vacuous claims of “once in a generation”. One definition of a generation is 25-30 years, but it’s pretty clear that it’s a contended number. More importantly, the phrase is nowhere to be found in the Edinburgh Agreement. You will find a reference to the result being “decisive”, but the problem is that it wasn’t. The Unionist camp reckoned in 2012 that the vote would be a “walk in the park”. After all independence was said by Blair McDougall to have about 28% support. The whole exercise was to put Nationalism “in its box”. However, Alistair Darling said that if the Yes vote was 40% or more, it would not settle the matter – and it didn’t. Not really.

Then there are those who accept there will be a referendum, but want to put in such onerous conditions that a successful independence campaign is at best unlikely. One letter writer to the Herald has argued there should be a requirement of 66% of all voters (not just those voting) in favour, just like his Golf Club. The problem with this, of course, is that this is not the UK tradition which is 50%+1. The UK left the EU on a lot less than 66%.

Rearing its head is a Royal Commission to examine how the UK is governed. Royal Commission’s are great for those in power. If the critics moan, it is always possible to say you have appointed a Royal Commission. Ideally they report only after a decent period of time, by which time much of the heat might have gone out of the issue. Alternatively, having kicked the particular can down the road, it is only eventually that you have to address the matter, even if it means abandoning all the proposals of the Royal Commission. But of course, we already have something like that. In July 2019 Lord Dunlop was appointed to “produce an independent report into the UK Government’s Union capability.” Leaving to one side how far we can trust a member of the Conservative & Unionist Party to produce a report which is “independent” in any meaningful sense, by November 2020 Lord Foulkes was asking the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, when we might expect the report, and was told “by the end of the year” (ie 2020). In January this year, “The chairs of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, Scottish Affairs, Welsh Affairs and Northern Ireland Affairs committees at Westminster have written to Michael Gove seeking publication of the review and the government’s response by Thursday.”. Various proposals have been leaked – appoint a Union Tsar, move parts of Whitehall into the devolved nations – but earlier this month, we were told it had been “delayed”. We’ll see.

The core point from all of these is that none of them actually confront the issue of the possibility of Scottish independence. Some try to avoid it by coming up with increasingly fanciful justifications to refuse even a referendum. Others focus on a throw away phrase that is not in the Edinburgh Agreement, so lacks the force of law. There are a couple of references in “Scotland’s Future”, but usually by individuals who only believed nothing else in the publication. Perhaps not even the page numbers. So no referendum, but if there is one let’s make it unwinnable. If all that fails, we’ll have a Royal Commission, stuffed with Unionists directed to work out how to make the UK work again. All of them are fundamentally undemocratic being devices to prevent the electorate from giving an opinion via a referendum, or queering the pitch, or just putting it off.

Tibalism and Iron Discipline

One of the qualities regularly observed in the SNP over the years has been its “tribalism” – the SNP “tribe” against the Unionist “tribes”. Whether this is fair or not, it has been one of the assets of the party, insofar as. far and away, the biggest part of the independence movement (SNP) stood against a much more balkanised Unionist movement – Labour, Tory, Lib Dem. If you believed in independence there weren’t too many other places you could go. If not the SNP, then the choice was between the Greens and a variety of splinter, splintering, splintered Socialist groups.

This though is in danger of being lost with the SNP starting to divide between the Nicola Sturgeon Party and the Alex Salmond Party. As I noted in a previous piece about current goings on, how the Unionist movement must rejoice at this sort of development.

Much social media writing clearly begins with the assumption that Sturgeon knows more about the ‘Salmond conspiracy’ than she is letting on, OR that she and those around her are happy to carry on in the subordinate role of a devolved administration, which for them is nice and comfy and well-paid. What’s not to like?

Taken in its entirety, the following have at one time or another been fingered

  1. The First Minister
  2. Her Deputy, John Swinney
  3. Her most senior Civil Servant, Leslie Evans
  4. Judith McKinnon, Head of People Advice at the Scottish Government
  5. Pretty much the entire Crown Office and Prosecution Service
  6. Police Scotland
  7. The Chief Executive of the SNP, forecast to sweep the board if there is an election this year
  8. Its Chief Operating Officer

I think that pretty much covers it, but let’s be clear that what is being alleged is that the political leadership of Scotland, the senior administrators of far and away its leading party, and its Prosecution Service and Police service are lawbreakers.

This reminds me of one of my favourite lines from one of my favourite films, “All the Presidents Men”. Woodward and Bernstein are about to publish a story alleging wrongdoing by John Mitchell who had been Nixon’s Attorney General (and partner in his legal firm). Their editor, Ben Bradlee, tells them “you’re about to write a story alleging that the Attorney General, the most important law officer in the United States is a crook. You had better be right”.

What is being alleged in Scotland goes much further than this – not only is corruption alleged in political and legal leadership, but in the Police as well. Moreover, while I can understand, if not wholly accept, that for reasons I don’t understand, Sturgeon got involved in a conspiracy to put to Alex Salmond on the golf course for the rest of his life, the allegation is that, assuming Evans and McKinnon were complicit, as were Murrell and Susan Ruddick, we are making the same allegation about James Wolfe (as head of Crown office) and the Chief Constable! Why would they go along with this? Was Alex Salmond really THAT unpopular? Or did he never stand his round?

Put at its simplest, what is it that lies at the bottom of this that could cause the independence movement not only to be rent in two but just when independence seems more likely than at any other time. The debate just now seems to be shifting away from questions like “what will independence do to my pocket?” to questions such as “can we not do better on our own?” and “do we really want to be part of Boris Johnson’s UK?”

One very tentative hypothesis is that the reason is not that significant, given the focus that the Unionist parties are putting on whether Sturgeon lied to the Parliament. In other words, their focus is not on substance but on technicalities, when we all know the former have much more cutting influence on the general public than the latter. Were the substance more important, you can bet they would be on that already!

The other quality of the SNP – and the other side of this argument – is its “iron discipline” – that you didn’t depart from the official line in public. Dirty linen was washed only in private. Other parties have envied this for years, but it’s pretty much non-existent now, as debate rages in the press between members of the SNP on the best way forward to secure independence.

Yesterday’s (virtual, owing to Covid) National Assembly, according to Grouse Beater, had a “chat facility” which was promptly switched off when members were (virtually) shouting at the leadership to *quit waffling* and get on with it. Chat facility promptly switched off again.” (https://twitter.com/Grouse_Beater/status/1353300107962294273). Is this really any way to run a democratic organization?

What is meant by “iron discipline”? Does it mean that once a policy decision has been taken, then there is collective responsibility, and party members are expected to follow it? That, at least, could follow a democratic event, such as an Assembly. However, to shut down dissenting voices to secure support for the leadership’s Plan B, which critics had been pleading for for years, is hardly democratic? Does it not reduce the notion of iron discipline to one where the leadership presents future policy which the members are expected – or required – to accept. Is the silencing of dissenting voices DURING THE DEBATE about the way forward indicative of a democratic system?

Or does it mean that the SNP, like most political parties, is now run by a “leadership class” with the power to reward and punish, to control information and procedures, as Robert Michels forecast of political parties (ie not ONLY the SNP) in his book “Political Parties”.

Put short, I suppose, what I am asking is “is iron discipline an example of Michels’ iron law of oligarchy?” How far are the events surrounding Salmond explained by the conduct of a leadership class in the SNP?

Perhaps somewhat, but it also needs to be remembered that it does NOT explain the conduct of the others – the Civil Servants (who would be expected not to act on instructions that they knew to be illegal) or the Lord Advocate and the Chief Constable (whose functions after all are to maintain the rule of law).

However, with that said, the unwillingness of the SNP’s leadership to conduct an open debate, or indeed to conduct their business openly, is a significant reason for their current problems. And one to be deprecated.